In a city known for street-oriented rap, influencing listeners to embrace hip-hop with a Christian message is a massive task.
Despite the disadvantage, several hip-hop artists in Memphis have decided to take on the challenge.
Terence June Gray is among the group of lyricists that have chosen to exhibit a Christian worldview in their music. Although not as popular as secular rap, Gray said there’s a substantial market for Christian rap in the Bible belt.
“Initially, I saw a little bit of hesitation of people wanting to hear it but the culture has warmed up to it more,” Gray said. “By hearing a lot of the negative, it makes you want something positive. We have so much pain, trials and so many issues [in the city]. We have a significant amount of crime. We have a significant gang issue. It’s a lot of hurting, a lot fatherlessness. I think a lot of young people are looking for some hope, and I think my message of the gospel speaks right into that desire for hope. When I share a song or a new CD, people tell me that there’s certain songs they listen to when they’re struggling with something, or certain songs encourage them, or certain songs give them hope.”
While a senior in high school, Gray gave his life to Christ and subsequently tapped into the world of Christian hip-hop. He’s currently prepping the release of his mixtape, Mission Muzic Vol. 1. The musical installment, which will be available for download late January, is being released through his Mission Muzic imprint.
Gray recently released a video for a track off the mixtape titled “One Million Views.”
Christian rap was introduced in the 1980s—a few years after secular rap made its mark. The first full-length Christian rap album was Bible Break (1985) by Stephen Wiley.
Nearly three decades later, artists such as Lecrae, GRITS, Trip Lee, the 116 Clique, and Flame have helped the movement obtain worldwide appeal.
It’s introduction in Memphis dates back to the cusp of the new millennium. One of the founding fathers of the city’s Christian rap movement is Delmar “Mr. Del” Lawrence.
On Easter Sunday of 2000, Mr. Del returned to the Bluff City to visit his family and church home. At the time, he was a member of Three 6 Mafia’s Hypnotize Camp Posse collective.
“I was on tour. Living the rap life. I came home [with plans] to surprise the church and the family, and that’s when I heard God speak to me,” Mr. Del said.
Prior to experiencing God’ presence, Mr. Del had signed a contract with Hypnotize Minds, and was featured on the album, Three 6 Mafia Presents: Hypnotize Camp Posse (2000).
However, his interest for the secular rap world changed when he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. Stepping out on faith, he left Hypnotize Minds and pursued a profession with Christian hip-hop.
More than a decade after transitioning into what he calls “holy hip-hop,” Mr. Del is prepping the release of his seventh solo offering Faith Walka. He’s owns the record label Dedicated Music Group, has been featured on B.E.T., and nominated for a Grammy.
“It was no way I would have known that Holy hip-hop would get to the level where people are making millions off of it,” Mr. Del said. “Now, we’re in the same circles as mainstream rap artists and that’s a blessing, because it started out as a joke. It’s making an impact now more than ever, because of the time put in and just the message in the music. People want a message of hope. They want to hear something other than murder music, trap or dope music.”
The market for Christian hip-hop in Memphis continues to blossom as time progresses. Throughout the years, more rap artists have followed in Mr. Del's footsteps, making a transition from jotting rhymes about worldly topics to being more Christian-oriented in their songs.
Among other Christian rap artists within the Bluff City, Adrian “Fro” Johnson has made a notable name for himself. He managed to sell more than 30,000 records independently with his debut album, Highway to Heaven. Since then, he’s released three more albums and created the label, Gods Wheel Records.
“With my music, I talk about real things. I talk about how life is a struggle. Everyday you’re tempted to do something that you might not want to do,” Fro said. “I want people to know that you can change. Jesus loves you and He wants you to change and He’s waiting on you. Christian rap is the new way of getting the gospel out.”
To the average individual that listens to underground or mainstream secular rap, Christian rap is something that may take some time adjusting to. Although it doesn’t focus on uplifting sinful practices, it does acknowledge them, the adversity they can bring forth, and how to overcome them through Jesus Christ.
“Sin is fun. People living in their flesh like to hear people rap about drugs and sex and all that," said Christian rapper Latrell “Yung Titan” Freeman. "That’s why Christian rap is hard to get into, because a lot of folks don’t want to let go of what they’re doing. When I was listening to [secular] hip-hop, it was kind of difficult for me to listen to Christian music, because it wasn’t what I was used to. I just want to encourage everybody to give us Christian rappers a chance, because we’re not doing it for the fame, we’re doing it actually to help people and build the kingdom.”
Follow Mr. Del: @mrdel
Follow Terence June Gray: @missionmuzic
Follow Fro: @Froministries
Follow Yung Titan: @Titan_Flash
Follow me: @Lou4President
Hayward Ivy, better known as DJ Squeeky to the music industry, is a pioneer in the Memphis rap scene. A native of Orange Mound, he grew up immersed in the same musical culture that bred such hometown legends as 8ball & MJG, DJ Zirk, Three 6 Mafia, Playa Fly and Kingpin Skinny Pimp.
Most notable for his trunk-rattling production, DJ Squeeky’s signature sound has filled the ears of more than a million listeners across the country. His extensive music catalog includes production credits on the albums (or mixtapes) of Pastor Troy, Young Jeezy, Young Dolph, Criminal Manne, 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti, 8ball & MJG, and a long list of others.
He’s also released several albums independently under his record label, Mo Cheda Records. Among these, albums such as DJ Squeeky & The Family’s On a Mission, Tom Skeemask’s 2 Wild for the World, and Project Playaz’s Til We Die remain Southern rap classics.
Stepping away from the drum machine and Pro tools, DJ Squeeky took time out to speak with me about how he got into producing, his involvement in creating the “signature” Memphis rap sound, having his style mimicked by Platinum producers and Three 6 Mafia’s remaining members DJ Paul & Juicy J, who he wants to work with in the future, and much more.
Follow DJ Squeeky on Twitter: @Djsqueeky4Eva
To purchase one of his beats call (901) 878-9208 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY)
How did you get into music?
I have a lot of family members that go to church. Some sing. Some play instruments. I used to play drums at my church, so that really gave me a lot of good interest for the music game. Everyone was a fan of music back then. Either you were rapping or you were beat-boxing or you were DJing. You were doing some form of hip-hop. I started off being a DJ, but being a fan of hip-hop, I didn’t just want to play the music. I wanted to be involved with making the music.
What inspired you to primarily focus on the production aspect of hip-hop?
I think production came when I started doing mixtapes. I was DJing at the clubs but I wanted to start doing the mixtapes too. I really got inspired by DJ Spanish Fly (legendary Memphis DJ and rapper). He used to be on the radio at 12. Club Expo. If you were a young cat, you were waiting to hear the Spanish Fly mix. You knew it was fixing to go down. I used to be like, ‘I want to do that too.’ I was still more curious with producing, because everybody was involved with the rapping part. [That's] what everybody got into, but you had to have music to rap.
How old were you when you first started producing? And who were some of the first artists you produced for?
I was probably about 15 [or] 16 years old. I did some work with 8ball & MJG, Criminal Manne, Project Playaz and Tom Skeemask. We all kinda grew up together in the same neighborhood. My house was the place that we came and put it down at. I had [Kingpin] Skinny Pimp, Al Kapone. Anybody that had a little name back then was at my house.
Did you have a studio setup in your house?
Yeah, it was in my bedroom. The mic and everything was in there. We were young cats, you know. We didn’t know nothing about mic booths and all that stuff. We had the mic booth, all the equipment, and everything all in one room. We had the microphone standing in the middle of the room. You just come in and you drop.
I noticed you haven’t done a collaboration with Three 6 Mafia. . Why was this? Were you guys in competition with each other?
It really wasn’t a competition, it was an issue with them re-making my music. They were really on the ‘stealing people's music thing back then.’ Their whole style, their beats, hooks, everything were based on shit I did. All the hooks that you heard from them [earlier on] were samples they took off my mixtapes. They were making their own songs off them. That’s how they got started.
Did that cause an issue between you guys?
I had a real big problem with it back then. I felt like, I’m just a dude over here in the 'hood trying to do my own thing with my music, and I see another guy trying to jump in on what I’m doing, sample what I’m doing, and steal the style of what I’m doing. Then you want to make beats like I’m making and everything. It was like they weren’t sticking to their own shit, which is what they should’ve been sticking to instead of trying to be a DJ Squeeky fan. I know they couldn’t help but be a DJ Squeeky fan, because I was the only thing around back then. But the thing about it was instead of sampling me, [they] should have been apart of what I was doing.
Are you referring to DJ Paul and Juicy J in particular?
I’m referring to both of them. I just look at them like they took what another man worked hard on doing. You want to be like him. You want to sound like him. You want to work your music like he works his music. And try to be me. Every album by Three 6 Mafia that’s came out to date got some DJ Squeeky on it. It’s got a DJ Squeeky hook, a DJ Squeeky sample, a DJ Squeeky beat pattern. It’s got something on that record concerning me.
Would you say that you helped establish the early Memphis sound production-wise?
Fasho, I did. Back then, everybody was doing it, but I took it to the streets. I was doing the mixtapes, putting them in the stores. Nobody was putting rap mixtapes into stores. Everybody was trying to get into record stores. I was going to Mr. Z’s, the stereo shops, and all that.
At what point did you decide to take your music career seriously?
I had left Memphis for about a year and a half. I was staying with 8Ball & MJG down in [Houston], Texas. They were doing real good. They were like in their second album and going into their third album. I was on their third album, On Top of The World. When I went down there, they really motivated me on what I really need to be doing in life. If I wanted to do the music, I needed to really get focused on doing the music.
[DJ Squeeky left Houston to come back to Memphis and raise his newborn daughter. He would later reconnect with Criminal Manne, Thugsta, Yo Lynch, and Tom Skeemask. The group would come together and create the album, On a Mission—DJ Squeeky’s national debut.]
How did people respond to On a Mission?
I sold 10,000 records the first week independently. We had a deal a couple months later. That’s when Relativity Records came down and signed me (and his record label Mo Cheda) and they signed Three 6 Mafia. We were on the label with Bone, Thugz-n-Harmony, 8ball & MJG, the Dayton Family, and a lot of other people.
[Relativity Records ended up folding, and the contracts of its signees were sold to Loud Records. Frustrated with waiting on the sideline for a release date, DJ Squeeky to his imprint elsewhere. Mo Cheda would have a short stint with Warlock Records before deciding to pursue the independent route once again. The label has been releasing music independently ever since.]
Who were some of your musical influences from a production standpoint?
We were more or less listening to Dr. Dre and them. 8Ball & MJG with T-mix and them making the music. M.J.G. taught me how to start working the keyboards and stuff. I didn’t know anything about the keyboard. I had a drum machine back then. MJG used to come back to Memphis [with his] Sonic keyboard. He used to show me a lot of tricks.
With my music, I wasn’t trying to sound like [my influences]. Their drive and the love for the music that they have, that’s how I looked upon them. I wanted to be that person to have that same drive to really, really make it happen.
What are some of the machines that you use to produce?
I’ve used the SP-1200 [drum machine]. I had a Boss Dr-660. I had an old Roland keyboard before Mini came out. My music back then was more like a sample thing. I was sampling things that I heard and was putting beats to it. I’m still using the drum machine to make beats. The MPC-3000. I’ve been dealing with Fruity Loops too.
How long does it take you to produce a song?
A few minutes. It all depends on what level I’m on. If I’m on a good level and got some good cheeba, it’s going to be a couple seconds. I know a few musical notes, but my music is based off feel, how I’m feeling at that moment, what I’m on at that moment.
Do you feel like you’re underrated?
Hell yeah. It’s like I know all the stars, but they slick want to fuck with me. But they slick don’t want to fuck with me. Some do and some don’t, but they know that I’ve got talent. It’s not like I’m some new cat that just started a few years ago. I look at it like they’re sleeping on me.
Who’s some of your favorite artists to work with?
I like working with Pastor Troy, Criminal Manne, Young Dolph, Playa Fly, I dd some stuff with [Young] Jeezy. He’s cool. I’m just naming people on work ethics. Not just people who’re saying they rap. I like to work with 2 Chainz. That’s my homie. He’s a good dude.
Are there any artists that you want to work with in the future?
I want to work with Young Money (a record label founded by Lil Wayne). That’s the camp I’m trying to get into right now. Young Money and Rick Ross. I’ve kinda touched base with everybody else that’s doing something.
You have a massive catalog of production credits. Is there a favorite song that you’ve produced?
I’m going to have to say “Lookin for da Chewin.” [A song off of DJ Squeeky’s album In Da Beginning: The Underground Volume One, which features Kingpin Skinny Pimp, 8Ball & MJG, DJ Zirk and Kilo G]. A lot of people don’t know that I made that song, because that’s another episode of DJ Paul and them trying to sound like me, trying to be like me.
What advice would you give for up and coming artists and producers?
All I can tell you is that you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing, and the best thing that you can do is to try to keep loyalty with the people that you’re dealing with. It’s hard trying to keep people in a group or a situation when you’re trying to make a dream come true. You have to really be focused on what you’re doing. I’ve had a lot different distractions from people who just tried to get me out of my direction in life. You just have to stay focused. If you don’t believe in yourself, nobody’s going to believe in you.
What’s up next for DJ Squeeky?
I’m in the process of putting a mixtape together. I’m getting ready to come back out in 2013. I’m fixing to kill the game. They haven’t heard anything new from me in a minute. I haven’t dropped a record since 2004 [or] 2005. I’m going to come back with the mixtape and get it back going again.
Follow me on Twitter: @Lou4President
Today, Marcus Matthews, native Memphian and author of I Am Not the Father: Narratives of Men Falsely Accused of Paternity, will be featured on the nationally syndicated program, The Maury Show at 4pm CST.
On the show, Matthews will discuss his book, upcoming documentary, and his personal story of being falsely accused of paternity when he was a 17-year-old senior at Westside High School.
“False paternity is something that affects so many people. It’s something that the public needs to hear [about],” Matthews said. “Getting the opportunity to talk about it on Maury accomplishes the goal of getting it out there. More than three million [viewers] will get to hear my story in brief and have the opportunity to learn more about my story if they purchase the book.”
Matthews released his book, I Am Not the Father, in August 2010. It profiles his personal account of being falsely accused of paternity, along with stories from four other men who were also falsely accused. He’s currently prepping the release of a documentary centered on the same topic.
In February of this year, I wrote a cover story on Matthews and the false paternity epidemic. You can read it here.
Nationwide, about 17 percent of all paternity tests reveal that a child's alleged father is not, in fact, the biological father. In Tennessee, 25 percent of paternity testing reveals the man not to be the biological father, according to the Department of Human Services
In Memphis, the percentage of men excluded by DNA paternity tests is significantly higher than the national average. Stephen Conn, director of Medical Testing Resources, says from 55 to 75 percent of the paternity cases he handles each month in Memphis are found to be "exclusions." His company does about 90 percent of the private paternity tests in the city.
To find out how Matthews’ experience on The Maury Show went, pick up next week’s edition of the Memphis Flyer.
You can order I Am Not the Father exclusively on Matthews’ website: marcuslmatthews.com
Follow him on twitter: @MarcusLMatthews